Cause consultant Nicole Rustad

We all know that money changes lives, but how do you ensure that if you want to start giving serious amounts of money to a cause that it is going to have the most impact? You get Nicole Rustad to help you. This go-getting mom to a 14 year old does cause consulting through her company, Vortovia, helping high net worth individuals and businesses to make real change through social responsibility and philanthropy.

Rustad has been a volunteer most of her life (starting with the Terry Fox Foundation at the tender age of 21), and worked in finance before the birth of her son. After deciding that she wanted to stay home, and volunteering some more, she fell into a career in strategic philanthropy. We wanted to know more about this, and how it intersects with her life as a mother.

Why did you start doing what you do?

When I qualified for student loans in my last year of university, I was able to stop waitressing to support myself. I thought, I’m not going to study any more than I already am, so I thought about volunteering with my new free time. So, way back then I was volunteering with the Terry Fox foundation in their offices, helping with everything from stuffing envelopes to public relations. That gave me the bug, but if I go even further back than that, both my mom and dad were always very giving people who were always doing things for others.

Out of university I ended up in the financial industry as a financial planner, but always dedicated another 40 hours a week to my volunteerism. I started an organization for young women in business that helped with leadership development, and that snowballed into me all sorts of other volunteer work, from sitting on boards or fundraising helping different causes. Then I had my son.

After my mat leave, I went back to work and thought, “Okay, I can’t do both of these things,” because my husband also had a big career. So I took some more time off work, and while I was off it was great, and I loved being at home with my son, but I wanted to do more things. I started doing a lot of volunteer work with another organization, fundraising and micro-financing for women to own small businesses in Africa. During that time Disney’s Club Penguin asked me to come and do a presentation to them on micro-financing because they were interested in it.

After I finished my presentation they donated to the organization I was working with, and asked if I’d be interested in a job with them doing strategic philanthropy. I was like, “You’re going to pay someone to do this?” Because I never expected to be paid for helping with social responsibility or anything along those lines, after doing it as a volunteer for 20 years. I applied, got the job, and basically did all the corporate responsibility for initially Club Penguin and then for the entire division of Disney Interactive, which is the tech side of Disney.

I just left Disney at the end of March and started my own consulting firm. There are three types of clients that I’m working with — One would be high net worth individuals who want to understand how they can be strategic about their giving and really move the needle on a cause. Another is tech startups who are interested in having a social component. There are entertainment companies that want to inspire their audiences to make a difference. There are also non-profits who want to scale and become more fiscally sustainable. I do everything from cause marketing and strategic philanthropy to building the strategy around social responsibility. And, if it’s a business I’m working with, finding what a great fit is for that business to be aligned with.

What does this work bring to your life?

It is very exciting and fulfilling. Through my work I’ve travelled to more than 40 countries and vetted projects all over the world. It has been a really great journey and been so rewarding meeting so many what I would call everyday heroes. I’ve met people in some of the most hard hit communities around the globe who are in the trenches making a difference every day with their special skills, abilities, and talents. That has been really inspiring. I believe in capacity building and helping people scale so that they can do even more, and that is really rewarding.

Why is this work important?

I help people figure out the right path forward with what they are doing. I help them catalyze that and drive change for whatever cause they are aligned with. This is sometimes difficult to do, especially with a business where they have to consider all of their stakeholders, it can’t just be the founder or one of the executive’s pet-cause, they have to please all stakeholders from their employees to customers to their audience to their community. If it’s an individual then it’s really about do you want to be able to focus in on something and make a substantial difference, because sometimes they find their efforts torn in a lot of different directions. There is a real opportunity to make change using people’s time, treasure and talents. If you can help people feel emotionally tied to something you can drive this change.

Has parenthood changed how you view your work?

I was already doing a lot to do with giving back when I had my son, but for me it all comes down to leaving the planet in a better place than I found it. With my son it becomes even more important, because I do want him to have a healthy, happy, and peaceful planet to live on, and I’m driven to make sure that is the case.

What does your son think about what you do?

For him it’s all about being his mom first. I remember on my first trip to east Africa, he was five years old and I was going to be away for three weeks. I said, “Are you going to be mad about me going away?” He said, “Mama I’m going to be sad but I know how important this is to you and I support you with what you are doing.” So he was very philosophical about it. He has come on a lot of trips with me, and seen a lot of things, and I try to keep the conversations going with him about how we can make a difference and what the situation is with the world.

It’s hard for our children to see how privileged they are. My son has said, “Why can’t I have this? It’s not fair?” Unfortunately for him, I’ll respond with, “Well I don’t think it is fair that 50,000 kids die of preventable illnesses.” Then he’ll respond, “Now you’ve just made me feel awful.” I don’t ever force anything on my son, I just want him to give back in his own way and pick his own causes that he cares about then help him nurture that. He’s into the outdoors and hunting and fishing, I’m a vegetarian tree-hugging pacifist, but if you’re being respectful and thinking about the consequences of your actions, and doing it sustainably, I’m in support of whatever he does. We have to nurture our kids to be who they are, and help them find their own path.

What’s one piece of advice you’d give to other parents about living with purpose?

Just pick one thing that you can do every day. That could be as simple as remembering to use your reusable bags at the grocery store. I think a lot of people end up not taking any action because it is overwhelming, but it is important not to feel guilty because you can’t do everything, integrate into your life what works for you and your family, it does make a difference. You don’t have to be someone in the news doing unbelievable things, do that one thing that you can do. If every single person did just one thing, we could change the world in really substantial ways, and we create a ripple effect with that.

What do you think you have in common with other moms?

I think a lot of the time it’s the wondering if you’re doing things right. There’s no manual!

What’s been hardest about what you do?

My work has meant that on average I’ve been away for three months of every year, and that’s been a lot of time away from my son, which never gets easier. Every time I leave on every trip, I handwrite my son a little note for every day that I’ll be away. Usually it’s done at about two in the morning the day I leave because I can never seem to be packed in advance for any trip. They’re always on sticky notes that I leave on the mirror in his bathroom.

What other moms do you admire?

My own mom for sure, but so many moms for so many reasons — being a mom is the toughest job in the world! One mom I think is unbelievable is my stepsister who adopted a sibling group of three kids. She started fostering them when they ranged in age from age two to six, and at that point she was working on her MBA and still working full-time. Her husband travels a lot with work so she is parenting them solo a lot of the time. She is such an amazing mom that I am blown away by her parenting.


The Whole Family Happiness Project is a group of moms exploring our connection to our individual purpose, our family happiness, and the happiness of the world around us. Come join us on Facebook.

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